Identity politics to colour revolution
My experience of the Balkan war and the futility of the victim/ aggressor axis
When I first went into writing this article, I couldn’t begin ; the volume of what I wanted to communicate was so large, encompassing so many divergent ideas that it seemed impossible to put it all down without triggering absolutely everyone and making myself the most misunderstood ( and possibly hated ) person in the world. Then, I realised that when one repeatedly tests as a Myers -Briggs ENTP / debater type, pissing people off in order to lead them into new realisations is my sacred role and duty in life, one I already generously heap onto my nearest and dearest until either our opinions are deepened and changed or they’re holding a triggered, shredded ego vowing to hate me forever. Such is the fate of a person who genuinely wants to discuss truths in this world – dealing realities to people who prefer to live in illusion can get one shunned, yet no matter how many people rile and anger at the unforgiving blows to belief systems, facts don’t care about feelings, they never have, we can only pretend imaginary paradises exist until hallucinogens run out. This series of essays are my version of a ritual cleansing, a shedding of sins into river Ganges, an attempt to banish swirling tornadoes occupying my thoughts these last two years . If we are to begin this deep dive into some of the most divisive topics on this planet, those who are new to the exciting dystopia that makes up the history of my skinsuit should get to know me a little better. Why is this important? Well, we read and watch opinion pieces in newspapers and on television every day- people presenting us with their personal thoughts on subjects cloaked as objective, verifiable truths by the perceived authority of the publication they represent – but we have no idea who these people are or why they have come to the conclusions they arrived at ; what was their life like, what is their financial incentive, what do they believe in deep inside, what sort of world do they want to see built and are their employers really as trustworthy and impartial as they seem? We know nothing about most of them and yet we accept everything they say without questioning because we think journalism is a trade concerned with passing on facts , when in reality corporate media long ago turned into spin and marketing – presenting explicitly biased information in order to shape public opinion in a way that will serve business interests and investors. In order to understand why we feel the way we do we need to go back to the very junction where emotions propping up our belief systems developed. After all, isn’t understanding and empathy the glue holding us all together? Ok, perhaps not for the haters, yet even they must admit that vigorous ,properly outraged gusto needs a solid back story.
I was born in 1980 in Zagreb,Croatia, then Yugoslavia, a beautiful place until civil war started when I turned 10. Yugo was a socialist communist country that didn’t sign the 1948 Soviet block pact leaving us with open borders and booming tourism – an anomaly in a world divided either into capitalism, iron curtain communism or dictatorships, a country that could happily exist self sufficient yet invited trade. There was seeming freedom, love and unity. Or so I thought because , well, I was a child. There were plenty of people with opinions they couldn’t voice, who wanted to have the ability to speak their minds but had to hide for fear of retribution, imprisonment or death. My primary school commie- lite indoctrination presented a world without pain, suffering and hunger, a world I too could help maintain, if only I embodied the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. And boy, did I ! – I remember getting so high on feelings of unity and love, tears streaming down my face, my little heart swelling at utopian ideals of equality for all people whilst singing off key in the kindergarten choir. Cringy when you think people in North Korea probably get off on the same soppy lines due to our shared red programming. Or is it? Is it embarrasing that a human being wants everyone else to be equal and have enough? Or is it a lovely attribute which is easy to hijack and manipulate for political gain? Let us put that thought experiment aside for a little bit so I can issue a disclaimer: I am still that kid. That desire of wanting all of humanity to live in peace and equal rights is still the baseline of my personality. Now you know when and how my core belief system was formed, I shall introduce you to the sad reality: The Yugoslav dream didn’t last much longer. The feel good vibes of solidarity did a sharp nosedive not long after our leader Tito died. There’s a long and atrocious history of humanity’s ugliness in the Balkans and fermenting resentments never resolved with bloodshed or swiping it all under the carpet, hence when it came to creating division it was a piece of pie. Media took marginal issues and blew them up into prime time ones, moronic stories like the Serbian guy who got a broken bottle stuck up his ass whilst masturbating but said Albanians raped him ( yes, really ) incited strong emotional responses that tore at the fabric of our once cohesive society. The exaggerated presentation of facts coupled with inflammatory, emotionally charged wording around sensitive, already divisive issues became a match lighting a bonfire of hateful nationalist vanities which soon enough progressed into open animosity of “those people”. Those people , meaning , whichever people we didn’t see as being on “our side”. The resulting dehumanization of whole swathes of society came so swiftly that most never even noticed being manipulated into unbridled contempt.
Once Slovenia succeeded from Yugoslavia it was clear the old country had no future left and Croatia soon followed, announcing its independence . Driving back from seaside holidays , we heard on the news all roads short cutting back to Zagreb between two horseshoe ends of the country were now blocked by violent Serbian militia - the journey was going to take ten more hours . Dad was unperturbed and insisted surely they could not block every single path so off he went on some unmarked, unsealed mountain roads, trundling the exhaust fan off our green Mazda so he had to MacGyver it back up with string . Sure enough, soon we hit a roadblock, men with rifles sneered as they approached our car whilst my heart promised to explode. Dad got out and offered a cigarette to one of the burly giants who looked like their leader – the man hesitated, then took it and smiled. They both lit up whilst mum chewed her fingernails in the front seat, the mangled stumps she punished whenever her agitation rose. I’ll never forget overhearing that intimidating brick of a man breaking down : “we have no rights anymore brother, they didn’t put any minority rights in the constitution, there is nothing to stop them from killing us now, just like they did in the second world war. I worked so hard to restore my ancestral land and now it will all be taken from me, all of it. I am scared for my children, their safety, their future”. My father stepped aside and chatted with him for a bit, then sat back in the car and the barricade opened for us. As an adult, I often reflect on the horrible gift of that experience; witnessing both sides of the victim/aggressor axis in one person made apparent how easy it is to become enslaved by emotions into continuing a never ending interplay of drama and violence. Yes, this human was a victim of generational trauma but when he allowed his fear to turn to anger that justified violence, paradoxically he became the aggressor , ensuring all his worries subsequently eventuated on the next retribution cycle . It seemed to me even as a child that being scared makes us stupid, dogmatic and paranoid; open to demons of contempt and irrationality. Like most things , fear itself must be moderated for too much destroys us through the futility of fighting illusory windmills, whereas not enough leads us to walk off a cliff.
We drove for hours not seeing a soul, an eerie reminder things had changed, irreversibly and forever. When we got back home my father bought a second hand satellite dish for our balcony, then made me watch nightly news from every country in the Yugoslav region: “Watch how they all lie, watch how they distort the facts to make us hate each other”. Indeed, all the news presented the same situation completely differently, often blaming the other for actions their own side committed. Who was “my side”? I didn’t have one because I was Croatian with Serbian ancestors. Dad said: “Our side is the side of truth, the hardest bastion to hold in times of insanity”. This sentence still reverberates and I remind myself of it often, especially as I navigate adult life and the current situation. Pop taught me an invaluable lesson in deciphering information ; always consider the facts of every side of the argument without judgement before making up your mind and if something preached to you as gospel stinks, make sure you dig even deeper into the preachers and the opposing argument - objective truth does indeed exist but most have motives to suppress it. Follow the money above all, division is created to benefit those in power or those who want to take it from them.
Soon, he was fired from his job after defending a muslim co-worker from cruel politically motivated attacks. He tried to reason with his employees this man was not their enemy but in fact that same old man they knew and liked who was hard at work advocating for everyone’s pay and hours to remain the same throughout a difficult time. No one wanted to hear him out, the mob had lit their torches- they fired the supervisor and my dad, then almost instantly had their hours increased and pay reduced. My father was “cancelled” – turns out pitchforks didn’t care about his children’s hunger in a quest for “social justice”. The curious thing to witness as a kid was the emergence of these “do gooders” who scuttled out from nowhere after being invisible for so long; a thus far silent subset of society who felt repressed had now deemed themselves so virtuous, knowledgeable, righteous and above reproach they perceived their own morality as superior to the rest of the population, by default in de facto charge of policing others. Fragile egos and violent inclinations hid behind timid, amiable masks in the shadows of a peaceful world; lunacy repressed by the ability to openly counter fallacious thinking was now strengthened by censorship and “official” validation from leaders. This subset of society is who authoritarian governments love and pander to the most – ones coaxed out of hiding with divisive rhetoric ; the mice rewarded by the door to the granary deliberately left ajar. Why? Well, these are the persons already distracted by ego or the pain of unworked trauma and programming , ones easiest to mobilize with emotional manipulation, simplistic slogans and neurolinguistic messaging into obeying and supporting unjust rules and laws , an army of eager volunteers least likely to engage in critical thinking or practice dissent. The childhood imprint of “be a good boy/ girl” messaging creates a lifelong pattern in which disregarding our own intuition, needs and moral compass is not just normalised but rewarded and celebrated - presented to us as maturity and outstanding character. But what if there isn’t any adults in the room? What if it’s all an illusion and the emperor has always been naked?
When school started in the autumn, war whispers now open threats, my 50 year old teacher didn’t call me by my name in roll call, instead she looked up a new subsection, pointed at me and said: “Serb, stand up”. Even though my family owned land and lived in Croatia for centuries, my father’s last name sounded different now. My childhood Eden was over: I was the enemy and the full weight of my new, worsened social status hit me like a ton of bricks. As I stood there in a sea of gaping mouths , acutely aware this adult took immense pleasure in demeaning me in front of the entire class, her smile wide at seeing me blush, that day, like finding out Santa isn’t real, I realized no one knows what people are really like deep down inside until the power pendulum swings so deeply into their clutches that simmering hatreds and bigotry become state approved. Soon after, my best friend started bullying me on the daily - perhaps out of misguided loyalty for her dad who was now a soldier fighting people like me. Old political conspiracies and historical re-shuffling became a topic du jour in the news; revision of well known events, leaders’ character , even words came under sweeping kaleidoscopic deception until heroes became criminals and vice versa. Old Yugoslavia, a mish mash of countries united with a loose common language had us all learning unique words of each teritory before the war – presently, asking for tomato the wrong way could get one beat up. “Maybe the Croats were right to side with the Nazis back then and the fascist militia of Ustaša were the good guys the entire time? The Resistance were the real evil doers” said a skinhead to his crew at the back of my tram one winter night, loud murmurs of agreement sending chills down my spine. My proud grandparents who fought to liberate Croatia from fascism were just stock standard criminals apparently. Nazi aligned Croatian soldier insignia started popping up everywhere, even on young kids’ clothes, the same army emblem people proudly wore as they ordered my ancestors to concentration camps was now staring back at me from a five year old’s t-shirt at my sister’s kindy. On the other side of the border children screamed for violence , emulating talking heads on TV who would one day stand trial for crimes against humanity in the Hague. Murderous madness infiltrated people into committing horrible atrocities, blind with poisonous ideas, old fears and revenge bloodlust. Air raids sounded in my hometown, loud siren calls to get to underground bunkers, sometimes for hours, sometimes large chunks of day and night. As intolerance increased parallel to people’s fears and media propaganda, I ceased taking shelter when home alone – taking my chances with bombs seemed less stressful than frowning basement side glances and insults from grown men who refused to look me in the eye as if I, a child, were a deadly virus. Then, Serbian males started surfacing floating face down in the Sava river and mum became paranoid dad would meet the same fate - as an 18 year old drafted into the obligatory year of Yugoslav military duty, he tested high on the mandatory IQ test placing into special service training. He’d since long become one of Balkan’s early transcendental meditators , a man who deeply believed in peaceful non conformism was now ,without any change to him whatsoever, seen by our neighbours as a deadly threat, a possible sniper, an extremist terrorist arm of the crooked ex Yugoslav government, someone they had to keep tabs on constantly to “keep the community safe”. To assuage my mother’s fears dad got a job as a night security guard in his friend’s firm and practically lived in a guard booth since militia men dressed in black made up of unofficial ex police and military dudes entered our house uninvited after midnight, ransacking the closets looking for him, my little sister wailing , my mother swearing he wasn’t here anymore, he left us, he left us, leave us alone, he left us and finally, after some time, they stopped coming. Still, often she would open the front door to leave for work and nearly trample the neighbor, who always coincidentally seemed to be doing a little floor washing on our side of the long corridor, the same old feeble neighbour my father used to fix appliances for free. Mum got uterine cancer from all this stress and had to go get a hysterectomy. I started thinking of throwing myself into traffic or jumping off our 15 story building too often and even tried a few times, to hilarious and fortunately unsuccessful ends. People pleasing hard, pretending everything was cool to my younger sister, school friends , bullies and parents ( because they didn’t need more of a burden) had its costs on my mental health - underneath the tough, jolly façade I presented to everyone I wasn’t ok, none of it was cool, it was insane and moronic and I hated the world; the catholics and the ortodox and the muslims equally ,all those who justified cruelty, stealing, lying and killing as noble, who lauded bloodshed and ignored reason. I never wanted to see empty shelves, eat stale bread with lard or see mum cry over money again. Nausea overcame me each time I saw another “businessman” drive by in his new top of the line Mercedes, rich on quickly turned over stolen public assets and nepotism, a new class of corrupt elites for whom poverty and strife didn’t exist sauntered through our society above any laws. I may had been inwardly screaming but it was into an abyss of my own making - I had no agency. Then dad said : “We should move to New Zealand! I researched it and nature is so beautiful there, it’s a peaceful democracy and also on the opposite side of the world from this madness” and mum said; “Yes we should, we must” so we did a couple of years later, as soon as we got all the needed papers secured, after we sold everything we owned for peanuts. My grandparents moved into a smaller apartment and began praying at night mass, great socialist idealists broken by the dissolution of their paradise.
You can see my history on this planet , living through a Yugoslav war and later September 11th in America with “true reports of weapons of mass destruction” inciting American people into supporting an illegal war and occupation of another sovereign country gave me a front row seat into why politics rooted in contemptuous relating and media exaggeration lead to bad places for humanity. I will not apologise for my utter disdain toward extreme polarity, labels and boxes for they are hopelessly useless when it comes to improving our understanding of each other and reaching peaceful resolutions. When you see media start wars based on lies not once, but twice, you stop believing in real journalism or the integrity of the people who feed us sponsored opinions cloaked as truth. Still, I am not special or completely immune to propaganda. None of us are. We all have personal biases and belief systems yet sadly these days we simply aren’t challenged by or exposed enough to opposing ones to assess both sides; that’s how perfectly our algorithms program our reality. The Netflix documentary Social Dilemma proved our preferences are used against us by the tech giants who provide only confirmation and validation within our own bubble, making us even more entrenched within our belief systems and more fragile and unable to cope with anyone who challenges our worldview. We have normalized hypervalidation- cluster B personalities’ favourite ego food. As expected, this sort of vehement belief in ones own’s truth to the detriment of others’ creates incredulity and misunderstandings – if we are so deeply trusting of our own set of facts, then how do we keep an open mind to learn more? The Social Dilemma’s eye opening attack on tech companies profiting by corralling people into ever more disparaging judgements comes with a final solution – to make truth a one way highway we all agree on whilst we stem dissident thought. This, to me is the most dangerous proposition of all, equalling state sponsored propaganda and in no way can I agree to disagree with this premise because all censorship as shown by history leads to the dark ages for humanity; whether it’s the burning of Alexandria’s great library, the silencing of Inquisition or recently Isis smashing precious thousands of years old artifacts. Yet, we keep forgetting, thinking somehow, this time, our sense of truth is not fallible, not up for debate or reasoning. We, like every other culture before us, think we are the most advanced , righteous and civilized one on the planet – humanity’s answer to sliced bread. But are we really?
In next week’s essay, I’ll be exploring the difference between ideology and values, how thought terminating clichés regress humanity and ways unworked trauma blinds us to truth and meaningful progress